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The Apple Watch Case Study What we can learn and apply from an affordance analysis
Mary M. Michaels Global Director of Training
Human Factors International
Apple Watch Case Study
Affordance Decomposition is a technique that enables you to quickly assess products and services,
from an end user perspective as well as from an ecosystem perspective.
The technique can be employed by one person or together with input from a team.
Performing this type of analysis early on helps uncover factors that might slow
or even sabotage widespread adoption.”
Apple Watch Case Study
White Paper Apple Watch Case Study: What we can learn and apply from an affordance analysis 3
Apple is estimated to have sold several million watches thus far, making it the best-selling smartwatch — as of this writing. At the same time, the Apple Watch has been derided by critics who say it is a complete and utter flop that under- whelms and fails to excite potential buyers.
Who’s right? Why is there this flap over flop versus fortune?
None of us have a crystal ball, so we can’t predict the future. Or could we, somehow? If we only had an app for that!
What we can do, though, is make use of a technique available today to project into the future along a couple of dimensions to help offer some guidance. We can look at the Apple Watch and do an affordance decomposition, a type of analysis that can help predict how it might fit into people’s lives, and where there might be innovations that could delight users, as well as features and functionality that could undermine widespread acceptance.
The purpose of this white paper is to share with you my analysis, following this affordance decomposition technique, so you can see an example of how it applies to a specific product, the Apple Watch Sport, and see the benefits of the ecosys- tem insights that design and development teams can receive, which may help to influence the success of the product.
Granted, from a usability perspective, this first generation Apple Watch does have its share of challenges, as review- ers have been quick to point out. These include inconsistencies in the different types of notifications, favoring recall over recognition on some of the func- tions, small targets on the screen, and perhaps, in general, focusing a bit more on the industrial design at the expense of the overall user experience. No need for me to rehash the reviews. Also, my comments here are not given to pass judgment, but rather as a way to help others learn more about design from both a user and ecosystem perspective.
An affordance decomposition helps predict how a product or service fits into people’s lives, in addition to identifying opportu- nities for innovation and obstacles to success.
The Apple Watch app screen
Apple Watch Case Study
White Paper Apple Watch Case Study: What we can learn and apply from an affordance analysis 4
Before I get into further details, let’s be clear about where I’m coming from in doing this analysis.
Disclaimer 1: For the record, I’ve used both Mac- and PC-based systems over the years, and I’m fairly pragmatic about the whole thing. I’m neither an automatic fan of Apple, nor am I a rabid detractor. I currently own an iPhone, but I’ve had other brands before it. So I think I’m able to evaluate from a balanced perspec- tive.
Disclaimer 2: I should also note that I am unapologetically not an early adopter type of person. You won’t find me camping outside of any store for the latest big thing. I’m very comfortable within the much larger ranks of the early- to late- majority category of the adoption curve. Therefore, I’m less swayed by all the hype about the Apple Watch, one way or the other.
Disclaimer 3: Over the past few years, I’ve stopped wearing anything on my hands or wrists, except for a small watch on those occasions when I’m out teach- ing. So for me personally, the first hurdle was seeing if I could tolerate wearing something fairly large on my wrist all the time.
I have the original Apple Watch Sport running Watch OS 1. I wore the larger 42mm model and white sport band for the first two weeks; although I’m not a big person, it surprised me by being extremely comfortable.
Then I switched to the 38mm version. The changeover and restoring of my data went exceptionally smoothly, too. I honestly haven’t noticed any meaningful difference with the smaller watch, so all the comments I made while wearing the 38mm also apply to the 42mm. Sure, in my head I know it’s about ¼” slimmer all the way around, but that hasn’t affected the readability of the screen or my abili- ty to accurately tap the target areas.
Neither watch face twisted away on my wrist, an annoyance I’ve had with other watches in the past. And, until I take it off at night, I don’t notice the little bit of moisture on the back of the watch where it contacts the skin to measure heart rate.
These comments are not intended to pass judgment, but to help others learn more about design from both a user and ecosystem per- spective.
Apple Watch Case Study
White Paper Apple Watch Case Study: What we can learn and apply from an affordance analysis 5
The Apple Watch is not a smaller smartphone. Period. It was not intended to be, and it’s clearly not how you would perceive it if you had it on your wrist. Rather, it’s an extension of your iPhone, making things more convenient.
This distinction is important since expectations do influence perceptions. Apple has marketed the Watch as a lifestyle accessory. As a smartwatch, its job is to filter out things and present only the relevant information you need to see immediately. This reduces distractions until you have more time to attend to the fuller data available on your phone, or more complete interface on your tablet or laptop.
Also, the Watch frees up your hands, which is especially helpful when smart- phones just keep getting bigger and bigger. Remember that women are still hampered by mostly impractical clothing designs that continue to omit pockets. So the phone gets stashed in the purse or backpack, thus representing a minor (or major) inconvenience when retrieving it. No such problem exists with the Apple Watch. It’s right there on your wrist where you need it.
Now on to the detailed results of the Affordance Decomposition, a technique created by Apala Lahiri, HFI’s Global Chief of Technical Staff, who also is head of the Heterotopian Design Group and CEO of HFI’s non-profit Institute for Customer Experience (ICE).
The concept of affordance builds on the idea put forth by Marshall McLuhan that "all media have characteristics that engage the viewer in different ways; for instance, a passage in a book could be reread at will, but a movie had to be screened again in its entirety to study any individual part of it.” Others have written about affordance as well, including William Gaver, who defined it as “the properties of the world defined with respect to people’s interaction with it.”
The Apple Watch is not a smaller smart- phone, and it’s clearly not how you would perceive it if you had it on your wrist. Rather, it is an extension of your iPhone, making things more convenient.
Apple Watch Case Study
White Paper Apple Watch Case Study: What we can learn and apply from an affordance analysis 6
Affordance Decomposition is a technique that enables you to quickly assess products and services from an end user perspective as well as from an ecosystem perspective. It can be employed by one person or together with input from a team. Performing this type of analysis early on helps uncover factors that might slow or even sabotage widespread adoption.
It’s one of the techniques I teach in our HFI Omni-Channel UX Strategy and Innovation course. The steps of an affordance decomposition are actually deceptively simple: assess the product or service from these four perspectives — Functions, Meaning, Limitations, and Challenges.
The following example is a particularly instructive one that we present in the course. The power of spending even five minutes doing an affordance decomposition can be illustrated by the hard lessons learned from Pfizer’s Exubera insulin inhaler device which was designed and released about a decade ago. The product took 11 years to bring to market, and it included a tube about the size of a flashlight which dispensed a newly developed form of inhalable insulin. As a medical device, it required full FDA approvals. But it was pulled from the market after losing $2.6 billion in its first year — the biggest failure ever in the drug industry.
Some analysts attributed the failure to Pfizer’s poor marketing to physicians, nurses, and certified diabetic educators. The company itself attributed the failure to not communicating more effectively with the physician community early on. Both of these views completely miss the most important factor: the patients themselves and how this device would fit into their lives. The device was unwieldy and inconvenient. The insulin was less effective and so the cost to the patient was greater. All of this indicated that it wouldn’t fit into users’ lives and into their ecosystem. No amount of marketing could solve these issues, which should have been obvious years beforehand. Even when investors and patients did balk at the bulky inhaler, it wasn’t enough of a red flag for Pfizer.
The stakes are equally high for Apple. Let’s see what an affordance deco